image of Ben Franklin on US currency with a graduate's mortarboard on his head (Photo: Shutterstock)

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Kimberly King was burnt out in her nursing career. BeforeCOVID.  So she took on student debt to change careers —and was defrauded by what she says was a predatory online college.Now at age 56, she's back 40 hours a week in her registered nursejob, and taking classes again to get a nurse practitionerdegree.

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"I had no choice but to go back to nursing, and seek an advanceddegree in the same field I was trying to get away from, in order topay my newly incurred debt," says King. Between her own $72,000 instudent debt now, and the approximately $25,000 in a parent PLUSloan she took out for her husband's child's education, King is oneof more than 8 million Americans over the age of 50 who holdstudent debt — and just shy of being one of the 820,000 of themwith student debt of $100,000 or more. In fact, there's nearly oneperson over the age of 50 with that whopping amount of student debt for everyperson under age 35.

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"At this point, I just work hard every single day of my life,praying that this will all be over soon and I will come out ahead,"says King. At 56, she feels like she's, "approaching retirementrapidly, which makes me very nervous."

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Increasingly, older Americans are taking on student debt – for their own or theirspouse's education, or more commonly, on behalf of their childrenand grandchildren. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)found that between 2012 and 2017, the number of student loanborrowers aged 60 and older increased by 46 percent ormore in half of all states. Because of factors like fixed incomesand other debt, these older borrowers are particularly vulnerableto student debt default and delinquency, often impacting theirability to retire securely.

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Older student loans borrowers on fixed incomes complain to theCFPB that they struggle to keep up with income-driven repayment(IDR) plans they enrolled in while receiving a salary. But toooften, loan servicers are not advising these borrowers that after aloss of income they can recalculate their monthly payments.

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Now, a new poll shows older student loan borrowers are alsodisproportionately impacted by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis ontheir economic security – and this impact is a significant sourceof anxiety. Savi partnered with Student Debt Crisis, the nation'sleading advocates for student borrowers, to conduct the nationalpoll in mid May. We had an astonishing 38,802 Americans respondfrom all 50 states. That's a response rate more than five times thesize of any of Student Debt Crisis's prior surveys.

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Student loan borrowers over the age of 46 were 50% more likelythan borrowers aged 18 to 45 to report that student loan debtcontributed to bankruptcy or closing a small business. About one inthree respondents overall said they were unaware of federal studentloan relief enacted by Congress as part of the March 27 CARES Act,but the rate of misinformation was slightly higher for olderborrowers.

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For student debt holders over age 65, two-thirds reportedgreater anxiety and depression due to their student loans, comparedto 55% for other age groups.  Six percent of this oldergroup reported having their Social Security benefits garnishedduring the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that the U.S.Department of Education was directed to pause suchgarnishments.

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There's no doubt the cost of higher education in America exceedsmost Americans' ability to pay without them, or their parents orgrandparents, taking on significant debt. And there's ampleevidence that the student loan system is a confusing andbureaucratic process that has yet to be remedied, despite federalefforts to do so.

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Now these realities are compounded for multiple generations ofAmericans by the worst economic collapse since 1929, employers aretaking action and beginning to provide immediate relief for theiremployees and members via innovative, online tools. We believe inneeding reforms and restructuring around today's student loanpolicies, we know it can take a long time while borrowers are inneed today and are unable to let their lives be controlled bypolicy. That's also why we have created a free site* available toeveryone during the COVID-19 crisis. Americans of any age who havestudent loans and have lost a job, been furloughed, or had hoursreduced because of the COVID-19 crisis can learn moreabout income-driven repayment or make other smart tweaksnow, before payments resume on October 1.

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We know it will be a long road back to financial security afterthe current pause in federal loan payments and interest accrualexpires on September 30. We believe that enrolling in anincome-driven repayment plan now can ensure that a borrower has apayment they can afford for up to 12 months — and if they have noincome, that monthly payment can be $0.

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In Kimberly King's case, she's waiting. She's not makingpayments on her own debt. She has applied for Borrower Defense toRepayment, which the Department of Education offers in cases wherethey determine a student has been defrauded by a predatoryinstitution.

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Older Americans still feel the loss of retirement savings or networth inflicted by the 2008 meltdown.  The COVID collapsemay be a blow from which many never financially recover. Aninvestment in a brighter future, like higher education, should notbe the cause.

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Tobin Van Ostern is co-founder of Savi, anonline service that walks student loan borrowers through the bestrepayment and forgiveness options. Savi is a student loan benefitprovided by leading employers, financial institutions andmembership groups. Previously, Van Ostern has led work at the 2008Obama campaign, Center for American Progress and YI Advisors with aplethora of national news features. Drop a line andlearn more: [email protected]. *See the free site here

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